How Not to Be Afraid (of Everything): Gareth Higgins and Jane Wong

I’ve done a couple of other dual review posts this year (and I have another planned for Friday) where the books’ titles are so similar that I couldn’t resist discussing them together, even if the books themselves were extremely different. First I featured two books called Ex Libris; later I reviewed The Still Point with The Still Point of the Turning World. This time I have two 2021 releases: How Not to Be Afraid, Gareth Higgins’s self-help/theology book about resisting despair and living in faith; and Chinese American poet Jane Wong’s collection How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, which draws on her family history. Together the titles seemed like a perfect antidote to R.I.P. (more coming up for that on Halloween!).

 

How Not to Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying by Gareth Higgins

I saw Higgins at the online Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature in April, after which I promptly ordered all the speakers’ books; I’m still reading the other three. He grew up in Northern Ireland in the waning days of the Troubles and has been involved in peacemaking projects as well as in artistic expressions of progressive Christianity such as Wild Goose Festival, which he co-founded, and The Porch, an online magazine he edits. Fear was ingrained in him from his upbringing and reinforced by the bullying he experienced over his sexuality. He writes that it took him decades to learn that fear is a story, one often based on false assumptions about our powerlessness, and that we can change the story.

There’s a psychological/self-help bent to the book as Higgins invites readers, through the exercises at the end of each chapter, to ponder what myths about the true self and its possibilities are limiting their lives. The “seven” of the subtitle actually refers to seven main types of fear, each addressed in turn, such as “fear of having done something that can’t be fixed,” “fear of not having enough,” and “fear of a meaningless life.” There’s a good mix of memoir, theory, anecdotes and therapy speak (though it’s never jargon-y), and while the perspective is Christian, the content is not so religious as to turn off anyone – unless they’re dead set against faith. Many passages hit me right in the solar plexus and made me long to work out how my life can be bigger and part of telling a better story. Particularly recommended to fans of Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr. (New purchase)

 

How to Not Be Afraid of Everything by Jane Wong

Wong is an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University. The centerpiece of her second collection is “When You Died,” a 20-page epic about her grandparents’ experience during China’s “Great Leap Forward,” a 1950s–60s Maoist campaign of agricultural reform that led to severe famine. Her grandfather survived it and her mother was born at the tail end of it. Wong was born to immigrant parents in New Jersey and the atmosphere and imagery she uses to describe her living situation there reminded me of Qian Julie Wang’s in her memoir Beautiful Country.

Foodstuffs provide the figurative palette, with decay never far behind. I most enjoyed the multi-part poem “The Frontier” (“The frontier arranges itself / around me like a moat. / The frontier drops fruit / upon my head. I break open, / hot cantaloupe in winter. / I wobble around, spilling fruit / everywhere. All day, fruit flies / pay their respects.”) and “The Cactus,” about her spiky self-preservation instincts. This is the theme of the title poem as well:

How to not punch everyone in the face.

How to not protect everyone’s eyes from

my own punch. I have been practicing

my punch for years, loosening my limbs.

My jaw unhinged creates a felony I refuse

to go to court for.

There are many unusual metaphors and word choices, and a lot of the alliteration I love. Opening poem “Mad” is playfully set up like a Mad Libs game with all the key words as blanks. But at the same time, there are loads of prose poems – never my favourite thing to come across in a collection – and some long ones that I kept getting lost in.

Released by Alice James Books on the 12th. With thanks to Nectar Literary for the free e-copy for review.

8 responses

  1. That first book looks really powerful. I’ve recently, after a fall, become afraid of running, which is potentially taking out a huge segment of my life if I can’t get back into it, so maybe I need to pick that up (I almost broke my hand and as a self-employed hand-using person you know how scary that is; plus transcription is even harder on the hands than editing). Maybe a review that’s come at the right time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that! He talks about when fear is a rational response to a situation vs. when it is not, and how to assess which rituals/beliefs are bringing you life and which are harming you. I indeed found it very powerful.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The cover of the Jane Wong book is stunning. Both of these sound interesting, and I do have an openness to self-help/religious contemplation. Plus I am often a big old scaredy-cat! I’m going to add the Gareth Higgins to my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s an amazing cover, isn’t it?! (Reading it in e-book wasn’t quite the same.)

      I think you’d enjoy Higgins’s book, and find it useful as well as reassuring.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] fourth title-based dual review post this year (after Ex Libris, The Still Point and How Not to Be Afraid), with Betty vs. Bettyville to come in December if I can manage them both. Today I have an early […]

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  4. You know I love this idea and I haven’t done it myself for more than two years, but having read more than ever this year I feel like I’ve come across so many more overlaps in the library catalogue that it’s getting increasingly hard to resist. This is an exceptionally delicious pairing AND seasonal to boot! Yay.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d love to hear about your overlaps! Almost every time I’m shelving I find books of a familiar title that aren’t “that” famous one.

      (I’m afraid to hear your year-end stats! You’ll blow me out the water this time.)

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      1. Maybe I’ll add it to my 2022 plans. *long, slow laugh at self*

        (I usually listen to a lot of podcasts and watch a good amount of TV/movies, but the second half of this year I’ve hardly done any of that (in comparison) so I think my stat’s this year will actually shock me too.)

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